What happens in Syria is important for reasons that go far beyond the borders of Syria. In the past three decades, the world has awkwardly navigated the “post-Cold War” era, the short-lived American-dominated “unipolar world,” the ugly “global war on terror.” the emergence of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and the unresolved debate on the “responsibility to protect” civilians who are mistreated grossly by their own governments or fellow citizens.
We may be witnessing in Syria the first example of a new global diplomatic process to end a conflict, protect civilians, and instigate democratic political reforms within a sovereign country in a manner that is at once legitimate, credible and effective.
In the past three months, a variety of countries – Arab and foreign, big and small, friends and foes of Syria – have all performed an ever-evolving diplomatic dance that last week generated a United Nations Security Council statement on Syria that is important for three reasons: It is unanimously supported by all council members, including Russia and China, who had vetoed earlier resolutions critical of Syria’s leadership; it waters down the earlier Arab League that explicitly called for President Bashar Assad to step aside; it seeks instead to halt the violence and open the way for an unspecified process of dialogue and reform leading to a democratic transition that may one day result in a new regime in Syria.
The two previous possible templates for addressing the Syrian situation – the Libyan intervention and war by NATO, and the unilateral Arab and Western demands that Assad step aside and make way for a democratic transition in the country – have both proved undesirable or unfeasible for certain key actors, primarily Russia. The past month has shown that if Russia and China decide to oppose the American-led camp, the situation will remain diplomatically frozen.
The Security Council statement fully supported the peacemaking efforts of U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, and called on the Syrian government and the opposition “to work in good faith with the envoy towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis,” and to fully implement his six-point proposal. This proposal calls for a “daily 2-hour humanitarian pause” in fighting, allowing humanitarian aid agencies access to all areas in need, and committing to working with “an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.”
The Security Council also calls on the Syrian government to “immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centers, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers.” It also calls for the release of all detainees, and for allowing foreign journalists to report freely inside the country.
The chance of this package being accepted or implemented by the Syrian government is virtually zero, because it knows very well that if it pulls back its military and stops attacking its own civilians in urban centers, hundreds of thousands of people will take to the streets in peaceful demonstrations against the regime. The important point is that the key global actors have agreed on this approach, to open the door to a peaceful process of political transformation by which Syrians nonviolently and democratically change their regime and install a more democratic system of governance.
A key element in this approach is that President Bashar Assad and his family who run the country will remain in power for now, and are the key party with whom the opposition negotiates. This is understandably distasteful to the opposition, given the extreme cruelty and near barbarism that the regime’s military forces have used against unarmed Syrian civilians for the most part.
Yet if the continued economic and other pressures on Syria make the situation unbearable for the regime (including cutting off travel links and indicting officials in international courts), the Annan plan approach, supported by Russia, may be the only option the regime has. Assad and his family may soon discover that their only two options are the fate of the murdered Moammar Gadhafi of Libya or the retired and perhaps exiled Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen.
There is no doubt that the Assad era is on its last legs and will soon end after 43 years of one-party, one-family rule – joining a wave of similar regime changes across the region that are driven primarily by the will of the citizenry to end similarly degrading power structures and governance systems.
The Assad regime’s ability to hide behind its own sovereignty is now exhausted. This week the world has started to craft a legitimate diplomatic mechanism that shatters the shield of this abused sovereignty, and demands certain actions that improve conditions inside Syria, and perhaps provide a slow-motion means of changing the regime for the better over a period of months or years.
The diplomatic dance continues, seeking to resolve the Syria crisis, but also to craft a new international diplomatic order.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.